A Call to Imagine

Are you tired this morning, Church? I’m tired. The temperatures spiked this past week from the freezer we’d been living in. Snow drifts started turning into puddles. The alley out back developed those two deep tire ruts like two parallel canyons of ice. The birds started singing again in the trees, and the sun came out all warm and bright floating in a sea of blue. But, after a decade of Minnesota winters, I won’t be bamboozled. I know this is Fool’s Spring, not to be equated with the genuine article. It’s hard to resist though. The yearning to be done with winter is strong. We might be tempted to prematurely put away our snow shovel, or start pulling our warm weather wear out of storage. But, not yet. 

So too, as the infection rates drop and vaccines roll out, we might also be tempted to think the pandemic is all but over. After all, this long season of quarantine and isolation has us all yearning for connection and closeness, to put away our masks and Purell and re-enter normal life. We are tired after so much loss, so much sacrifice. So we might be forgiven today if we’d rather not hear from Jesus this harsh word of yet further sacrifice. 

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

This is a difficult word to hear as we enter the 12th month of this seeming unending pandemic. It is no easy thing to hear when we are weary and in need of respite. I was reminded this week of one of my favorite novels, Silence, by Shusaku Endo, set in 17th century Japan amid the aftermath of the failed Shimabara Rebellion. The story follows Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit priest in his own wrestling with doubt and a silent God who seems absent from his prayers. Rodrigues is forced into a series of increasing hardships as he seeks to minister to and assist a church that has been outlawed and driven underground to the point of invisibility. Over and above his own internal struggles are the very painful accounts of Japanese Christians forced to renounce their faith by fear of horrific and excruciating death. The means of renunciation? To trample on a carven image of Jesus. Rodrigues is ultimately captured along with several other Christians, and yet refuses to renounce his silent Christ, refuses to trample. To compel him toward renunciation, his captors begin to torment the other captives. In a climactic scene, surrounded by the agonized sounds of the tortured church he came to serve and assist, Rodrigues is presented with the homely image, dented and sorrowful, of Christ. It is not the Christ he has long prayed to in silence. Despite the suffering he could end, Rodrigues still cannot bring himself to trample. Even though this is not the Christ of his formation and ministry, the Christ of a Church militant and powerful, he will not step upon it. That is, until the silent Christ speaks. Rodrigues hears the voice of Christ coming from the carven image set before his feet. “Trample, Rodrigues, trample,—it is for this that I have come.”

Pastor and writer the Rev’d Fritz Wendt describes this moment in the book as a moment of discovering a true theology of the cross. He writes 

“A theology of the cross claims that there is a difference between church and Christendom, faith and certainty, hope and optimism, love and infatuation. This may not be a welcome message for many of our congregations, but it will ensure that we worship an image of God that is not silent. In Endō’s novel, the triumphing Christ of Christendom that Rodrigues believed in could only function as a model by which he would be judged. As he discovers the real Christ in the midst of his agony, the silence is broken. He has found the Christ upon whom the sufferer can cast the burden of his suffering.”

This same struggle to perceive Christ in the lives of the suffering versus the Christ of Christendom, the difference between a Christ whose way is linked to strength and power versus a Christ whose way is downward and self-emptying might seem a difference so easy to discern that it is laughable. Yet, in today’s gospel this difference is one that Peter seems quite unable to discern as he weighs the words of the very real Jesus in front of him against the Messiah of his wildest imagining. Mark writes that Jesus began to teach the disciples in a very public way about his own Messiahship. He tells them that quite in contradiction to the stories they’d been raised to believe about a Messiah who would ride in in power to conquer the people’s oppressors, a Messiah with a warrior’s strength and a king’s prowess, a real leader who would be easily recognized by the political elite and who would restore the greatness of Israel, that  instead he, Jesus, their supposed Messiah, will be rejected by the establishment, scorned, and ultimately killed because of his mission. Peter rebukes him. How could he not? Jesus’ version of power, the way that he describes, the kingdom he proposes to inaugurate, is woefully out of sync with the reality in which Peter has placed all his hopes and dreams! Peter cannot imagine that the truth in front of him is to be the truth of God’s kingdom come, and in this moment actively resists a Jesus whose call is to follow the way of Love, which is really the way of the cross. 

Peter is not alone in this struggle, this failure of imagination, he is not alone in his inability to discern which Jesus he will follow, the Jesus of self-emptying and sacrifice or the Jesus of power and glory. The Church has long struggled with this very failure of imagination, the inability to discern the very same over the millenia of our existence. Since the edicts of Constantine in the 4th century yoked Christianity to a place of privilege with state power in the west, the Church has wrestled with discerning the Christ of the downward way, the Christ of the cross, from the Christ with proximate access to the thrones and kingdoms of this world. We have, time and again, believed that with access to money and privilege and power, we’d be able to do so much more to further the cause of God’s kingdom here and now, forgetting Paul’s promise in the epistles, that it is Christ’s power (not the world’s) working in us that can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. From the Crusades and the inquisition to slavery and all its more modern iterations, the church has quite often allied itself with the powers of this world, powers that are familiar with violence and death as their modus operandi. Yet, it is often the dispossessed whose voices from the periphery and the margins are calling out and making audible the cause of the suffering Christ – giving voice to the cause that seeks not power and glory, but abandons these to be with the downtrodden, the hungry, the lost, the lonely, and even you and me, tired as we are by the struggles of life. The Church may miss this Jesus time and again, yet Christ is being made known and will be known most by those with the imagination to see in the cross of Jesus the solidarity of God with all who suffer.

Howard Thurman names this truth simply, writing of the appropriation of Christianity by converted slaves, saying that “By some amazing but vastly creative spiritual insight the slave undertook the redemption of a religion that the master had profaned in his midst.”

If you watched the recent PBS special, “The Black Church”, you’ll have borne witness to what Thurman is talking about, how slaves and their descendants appropriated and even reformed Christianity more in their own image, in the language not of a conquered world bent on white supremacy and domination but on a liberated world, articulating a God in solidarity with the suffering. I hope too, that if you watched the show you saw within the witness of the Black Church a prophetic voice pointing all of us who profess to follow, away from paths of privilege and power toward the way of Love, the way of the Cross. This corrective is needed in the world now more than ever, and it is needed especially in the Church where still too often power and might, privilege and money, are conflated and conjoined to the mission of God. This corrective is needed wherever we followers of Jesus have been quick, as the Reverend Otis Moss III says in the opening sequence of the documentary, to confuse “position with power”. 

“Pharaoh had a position, but Moses had the power”, he preaches from the pulpit. “Herod had a position, but John had the power! The cross had a position, but Jesus had the power!”

There is power, as the old hymn says, wonder working power, in the precious blood of the lamb. There is power available to the church in the crucified Christ. It is a power that awakens the heart to God’s love. It is a power that converts the soul away from its death dealing addiction to selfish ambition and privilege. It is a power to console the suffering and raise up the weary. It is a power to galvanize the oppressed and give energy to those who have long struggled for freedom. It is the power to imagine a way that is life, and hope, and breath to those who need it.

Are you tired this morning, church? Are you weary? I am.

But, no matter how tired you are this morning, no matter how weary, I hope you can still hear in Jesus’ call to lose our lives for his sake, a call to imagine the possibilities of what could be if we find our own lives, our souls, our very selves restored in the power of the crucified one, in the power of his love. Imagine what could be if we let go of our need to be seen for who we want to be and instead trust that we are seen, and loved, for who we are. Imagine what could be if we stopped worrying whether the church is going to meet our needs, and started worrying whether we could be the church, meeting the needs of others. Imagine what would happen if we trampled on and renounced the images we carry of a church conflated with worldly power and personal privilege and embraced an image of the Body of Christ broken and given for a world so much in need of it. Imagine the life we might gain. Imagine!

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